Laura Booras of Riverbench leads a virtual vineyard your on Facebook Live. | Credit: Courtesy

Buy more wine and beer, straight from the source. 

That’s the number-one way to help Santa Barbara County wineries and breweries survive the COVID-19 outbreak. The social distancing measures ordered to contain the virus have closed winery and brewery tasting rooms up and down the state, eliminating both industries’ primary source of income, as in-person tastings lead to sales. A quick result was widespread layoffs across the sector, which at least allowed employees to sign up for unemployment payments.

In response, producers are unleashing a range of new ways to buy and experience wine and beer. Most have turned their tasting rooms into retail pick-up stores, many offering curbside pick-up as well, including Whitcraft and Margerum in downtown Santa Barbara. 

Delivery options are now ubiquitous: Some, such as Municipal Winemakers and Kunin Wines, have signed up for grocery distribution services like Postmates, while many others are simply delivering the wines personally. 

And the virtual wine world is exploding: Among many examples, Laura Booras from Riverbench is leading online vineyard tours, Chad Melville from Melville Winery is hosting digital happy hours, and Bion Rice of Artiste is planning “build your own barrel at home” sessions.

All of these offers were compiled by marketing consultant Kady Fleckenstein of Kadydid Consulting into this database (which also includes a wealth of more COVID-19 restaurant and retail information). And the Santa Barbara Vintners integrated that data into their website as well to launch the “Let Us Take Care of You” program here. Both databases are being updated frequently. 

“The very nature of our business — sharing and selling our estate wines in a beautiful setting — has changed,” said Booras, who’s also started a hotline where people can just call to talk to someone. “We are reinventing ourselves every single day right now. But it’s not about sales for me. Right now is about keeping in touch with the network of people who love Riverbench and our wines. If we can make someone’s day a little happier, or bring out a smile, or be a breath of fresh air in a chaotic time, we will do it.”

There’s also been a surge of retail sales, but most Santa Barbara County wineries are not in the wholesale market, as there’s usually much more money to be made selling direct to consumers through the tasting room. “Retail is strong for the moment, but only my loyal partners continue to buy,” said Peter Stolpman of Stolpman Vineyards, who is primarily turning to his wine club members for support right now. “Retailers are not looking for new suppliers in these market conditions.” 

Drake Whitcraft of Whitcraft Winery sells a lot of his wine in restaurants. “With the tasting room closed, and people out of work and restaurants closed, my fear is that sales could come to a grinding stop in about a month,” said Whitcraft. “So right now we need to get as many sales as we can.” 

Alison Laslett, the CEO of Santa Barbara Vintners, is doing what she can to rally support. “We are determined to protect first the health of our individuals, and second, our industry,” she said. “They have soldiered through emergencies before and they will do so again, because at the core of their craft is to create something to share. I know they will find a way to do this safely, to bring some comfort to people during unsteady times.”

Breweries are in a similar position. “After the difficult decision to make significant cuts in overall personnel, we have converted our locations that have restaurants into take out/delivery hubs for food and beer,” said Jaime Dietenhofer, owner of Figueroa Mountain Brewing Co., who had to lay off 200 employees that he plans to rehire once the outbreak is contained. “The remaining staff has converted into delivery drivers or take-out support. We are continuing to make beer for our distributors who sell through grocery stores/chains with our scaled-down brew staff.” 

Tami Snow, of Draughtsmen Aleworks, hopes her brewery’s partnership with Buena Onda Empanadas, available at both the Goleta brewery and at the Mosaic Locale in downtown Santa Barbara, will help sales. “Offering empanadas to-go in Goleta is a win-win for the Draughtsmen and Buena Onda partnership,” said Snow. “It expands Buena Onda customer reach and allows Draughtsmen to continue to-go beer orders.”

She also suggests Draughtsmen fans to order to-go food and beer from the many establishments in the Santa Barbara area that regularly pour the beer. “This will give them an extra margin on the beer and help support them and us,” she said. “Working together is the only way to try and make sure we are all here after we get through this crazy period of time.”


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